Tag Archives: identity

“Not like them”

I wrote a letter to a friend, triggered by but not really (only) about this quote attributed to Timothy Leary. Yes, this is how I write letters. No, I don’t know why I can’t break out of declaiming revolution mode either.

So there’s this meme (see: Doctor Who, goths, The Little Mermaid, geeks, etc) that some people are just “not like everyone else” and it’s predicated on the understanding that “everyone else” lives these mindlessly mundane lives, and consumes and drones is a sheeple and in all ways is just dull dull boringly DULL, and YOU, angsty rebel nonconformist deep thinker YOU are NOT LIKE THEM (ie you are better), because their life isn’t INTERESTING enough for you. I was sort of raised like this, in the SCA, and we were cool because we weren’t “cool” because we weren’t the mundanes.

And while I think there’s lots of interesting stuff there, that it’s a pushback to being excluded for oddness, that some people are more inclined to be the adventurers and some the culture keepers, all that aside: more and more I think it is, simply, bullshit. Because we ALL, to some degree, long for/fear novelty and change, and we ALL sometimes think about boogers and whether we left the stove on, and we ALL get bloody bored with the washing up, and we ALL sometimes wonder “is this all there is?”

And this meme, of special non-mundane, non-sheeple, is just another bullshit way of dehumanizing the people around us, of making ourselves feel better-than, and thus it perpetuates kyriarchy.

I’d much rather spend my time enjoying both the ways in which I am traditional and the ways I am not, exploring the boundaries of what we construct as “mundane”/”boring” and investigating why we do, and connecting with real people who, like me, are complex and nuanced and ugly and boring and bored and amazing.

And the point, the POINT, is we are ALL real people, and it’s up to me to see that, to get to know others’ realness, instead of dismissing them based on my own false imaginings.

Braiding Gender

His hair is soft, smooth against my fingers as I sooth it down from the brush’s static. He brought me the brush, and a hair tie, presumptive in his certainty I would do this for him, brushing-braiding-primate bonding. As he should be; as he has no reason not to be.

“Do you want a braid or a ponytail?” I ask.

“Ponytail. No, braid! Braids are prettier.”

“Alright.”

I change the brush’s angle now, gather the gold in my hand, divide it by three with these two practiced fingers. His voice pipes up while I plait:

“Some people might laugh at me, because they don’t think boys should wear braids.”

My hands don’t stop, even as my heart does.

“That’s true. Some people might.”

Braiding, simple braiding like I am doing, is a series of trades; left for middle, right for middle, twist twist twist, trading turns each time.

I twist.

“What would you do if someone did laugh at you?”

“I’d run away.”

Twist.

“Or I’d find someone who wasn’t laughing, and I’d tell them.”

Twist.

“Or I’d use my words, and tell them to stop.”

Trade.

“Those all sound like good plans.”

Twist, twist.

“Do you think anyone at your school will laugh at you?”

“No.”

His answer is swift, certain, a full stop.

“Good.” I bind the braid, prevent its unraveling with a simple strand of elastic.

“There you are!” I pull him close. “My pretty boy.” I let him go.

***

What does it mean to be gender non-conforming? Can a child raised in gender diversity, without expectation of conformity, be gender non-conforming? My firstborn rejects nothing; we give him nothing to rebel against. He embraces all: pinks and browns, blues and purples, and everything, everything red.

I could describe him one way — how he bounces around the room, turns sticks into light-sabers, plays ceaselessly with his private pretend army — and garner proclamations that “he’s all boy!” Or another — his love of long hair, his doting on his baby sister, how he hugs everyone who stands still long enough — and get a much different reaction. Both are true; both are incomplete.

***

Contrary to the warnings long-given by naysayers of low-gendering parenting, the Boychick is no ignorant innocent: show him any stereotyped advertisement (or book, or film), and he will tell you exactly which is supposed to be the girl, which the boy. Despite my secret subversive desires, there is no idealistic confusion here. But nor, though on anyone else he would proclaim them to be so, does he seem to have any concept of his own clothes as “boy” or “girl” garments; they are only the red-with-heart, or red-with-dragon, or the brown dress-shirt, or the blue with the beautiful bird. They are only clothes, loved on their merits. They are only his.

***

Is this gender non-conformity, this lack of rejection of that we deem feminine? How can it be; how can we stand the double standards, when his sister inheriting the same mixed wardrobe would be seen as fully “normal”, not even so much as a tomboy, but nor an especially girly-girl? How can I allow a pathological interpretation of one child for an equal love of hair braiding and hare-brained ideas that would be deemed fully healthy if found in my other?

And yet.

“Some people might laugh at me.”

Indeed.

***

He’s not wrong.

It is, in fact, something of an understatement. According to TransActive, “Gender non-conformity is the third leading cause of school bullying” (and “#2 is actual or perceived sexual orientation”). And from a newly published study from Harvard School of Public Health, “Rates of PTSD were almost twice as high among young adults who were gender nonconforming in childhood than among those who were not.”

Sometimes gender nonconformity is conformity to an unacknowledged gender. Sometimes it’s not.

Sometimes gender nonconformity is because society doesn’t give kids any model for their gender. How can they conform to the expectations of their gender, when according to their family and their schools and their culture, their gender — not fitting neatly into the two accepted and exclusive slots of “male” or “female” — doesn’t exist at all?

Perhaps that is my child’s purview, a both or a neither or a something else altogether. He’s not entirely unfamiliar with the concept, though it’s not like ze or the singular they roll off our tongues as easily as I could wish. But so far, he says not: playing she or both at his fully accepting, gender-full school is well and good, but at the end of the day it is, he says, but a role, and he becomes he once more.

***

I want to have a neat wrap-up, a ten-point list, a how-to guide. I want to twist a tie at the end and be done, left with simple beauty, woven into being. But like his braid, the question of my child’s gender — of any child’s gender — frays and gathers gunks and fly-aways, and will need to be taken out, smoothed and soothed and brushed back, to be put together again, and again, and again, as often as he asks it of me.

Writings on a baby’s body

On sisters and siblings

I made the mistake early in my pregnancy of asking the Boychick if he wanted a brother or a sister, meaning did he want one-of-the-above. But he heard me, paused for a moment, and announced “A sister!” I laughed, and tried again after explaining that we didn’t get to choose, but he was undeterred. From then on, he was adamant that a sister he would have.

And then came the baby, vulva first. (The line that ran through my head at the birth, which we weren’t expecting to be breech, was “I don’t think scalps have mucus membranes.”) We explained again, as we had throughout the pregnancy, that we were making a guess about her gender, based on her genitals, and we wouldn’t know if she was a girl until she told us, just like we didn’t know he was a boy until he told us1. He was fine with this (it helps, I think, that he has an openly trans man in his life, so he’s familiar with vulva-but-not-a-girl) — as long as we were clear that she was his sister. “Sibling” just would not do.

So sister she is. And she she is, for the moment, as long as English insists on gendered pronouns. Oh, I could refer to her online as ze or s/he, but the truth is, we don’t do that in person, and it seems overly pretentious to do it online alone.

On pronouns and provisional assignments

Which, of course, begs the question: why is she she? Why do we, The Man and I, advocates of gender diverse parenting that we are, assign gender at all, no matter how provisionally? I’ve been asked this before, even been attacked because of it, and had my “commitment” to the “cause” be questioned.

Not, please note, by anyone with children of their own.

Because here’s the thing: this parenting gig? It’s fucking hard. It’s hard intrinsically, one of the most physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging activities one can engage in in life, and certainly the one with the longest haul and hardest hurdles to “quitting”. And my society, my dear, pressures-all-(privileged)-women-to-be-mothers-but-forget-about-actually-supporting-them society, makes it so, so much harder.

All parents are attacked for their choices by somebody2; any parent making a choice outside of the “mainstream” gets attacked even more viciously, by even more people; and the more marginalized a parent is, the more the attacks come not “just” in words3 but in tangible, terrifying ways.

Nearly every time I write about gender diverse/gender “neutral” parenting, I have a queer parent or a trans parent or a parent on public assistance or a parent dependent on the goodwill of their disapproving family tell me that they would be so much more radical/subversive/gender-diverse in their choices if they weren’t afraid they would lose custody of their children.

They have reason to be afraid.

I’m reasonably protected from the most catastrophic of the consequences, apparently living in a socially-condoned heterocentric, white, middle-class relationship — but even I still have so much shit to deal with, with my finite mental/emotional resources, that there’s only so much I can do. There are only so many choices I can make that take me out of the mainstream and into even-deeper public scrutiny, and still, y’know, survive.4 So I make the ones I do, the ones I can, the ones I am willing to defend in the face of the worst of the judgment.

(Just for not enforcing gender roles with my children, I am called a cunt and a dyke and a fucking crazy bitch and told I should have my children removed. There are all too real consequences for stepping out of kyriarchy’s line, before it even comes to the level of custody issues. It is not only unreasonable but actively harmful, a means of perpetuating kyriarchy and oppression, to demand that parents, already attacked on all sides, do all the work raising children radical. Society has to help make it reasonably safe for us to do so, as well.)

Vulva Baby or the Girlchick?

Girlchick seems the obvious blog moniker for this new child of mine, doesn’t it? We have a child with a penis, the eponymous Boychick, who was given that name years before his gender was self-declared, and now we have a child with a vulva. And I tried it on, used it in a post, tweeted it a handful of times — but it never sat right with me.

I look at this child, and I don’t see “girl”. I see a baby, as her brother was once a baby; nothing screamed “boy” about him, the occasional acquaintance’s comments to the contrary, and nothing announces “girl” about her. She is very much not her brother: she spits up less, and farts more; she is happier to be in a carrier when awake, but more often prefers facing to the side instead of towards me; her elimination signals are clearer, and she wakes more frequently at night; her hair is redder, her eyes less goopy, her scalp more bumpy, her digits shorter. And she has a vulva. What about this makes her a “girl”, if we are to avoid essentializing gender to genitalia?

When strangers ask me “Boy or girl?”5, I’m apt to answer “she’s a she”, because saying “girl” just doesn’t feel right, or honest, or accurate; this answers the question they really need to know6, which is what language to use to talk about this adorable being. But it seems nearly obscene to that heavily put a gender on an infant this young; can’t she just be a baby for a little while, before we start telling her what role to play?

Resolving the conflict

That may seem like a contradiction, this use of “she”, this (mostly) avoidance of “girl”. But one is about survival in a society antagonistic to non-gendering; the other is saying “this far and no farther”. I cannot stop all damage from being done to this perfect child of mine, but I will do what I can to minimize it. I won’t pretend that she’ll be unaffected by others’ perceptions of her, but I will help her be aware of them; I won’t tell her what her gender is, but I will tell her what her society thinks her gender should be; I won’t subject her to every strangers’ disapproval of alternative pronouns, but I will tell her she can choose another if she likes; I will tell her she has a vulva, but I won’t tell her she has to stay that way. And I will tell her I will always, always, always love her, whoever she turns out to be.

  1. He started declaring “I’m a boy!” around a year ago, at 3.5 years.
  2. No, really — that is the point of the “mommy wars”: there is no winning. It truly does not matter which “side” you fall on, because there’s the mass media, telling you how much the “other” side thinks you’re ruining your children/going to hell/Doin It Rong. Fun! Only, not.
  3. As though the psychoemotional toll of verbal abuse isn’t itself a problem?
  4. For someone with a set of mood disorder diagnoses that is the most lethal of those tracked, this is not hyperbole.
  5. Or, the strangest comment I’ve received yet: “I’m sorry, I can’t tell from here, is that a boy or a girl?” Like you could know if she weren’t inside the wrap?
  6. Yes, need, until English eliminates the need for gendered pronouns.

A Tale of Two Slayers: on speaking race and white-as-default

“I’m Kendra, the Vampire Slayer! I’m a girl! I’m Black!”

This was the child’s refrain nearly non-stop for three days last week. We’d watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer1 with the other Slayer, Kendra, and he latched on to her immediately. Why? No idea. But it was an interesting few days.

After a while, he stopped (she only shows up twice before dying herself), and the refrain was replaced with “I’m Buffy! I’m the Slayer! I’m a girl!”

Notice what’s missing?

While I’m pretty pleased that the Boychick is willing to name race at all, he only does it for the Black character — the Other.

“You’re Buffy, huh? What race are you?”

Silence. Try again: “What color are you?”

“I’m the same color as you.”

Oh boy.

We’ve had this conversation a dozen times now. Sometimes I ask him what color I am; sometimes I tell him (“So you’re white, like me, and like [the Boychick].” or “Well, my skin is a light pink, and we usually call that white.”). He is unafraid to name her gender, unafraid to correct his father or I when we use the wrong pronoun (“I’m a she!”). But her race, to him, is invisible. It is the default.

And that’s a problem. That’s my problem, inasmuch as I have allowed and encouraged it. Because there is this: if his race-less Buffy-play had not been preceded by race-named Kendra-play, I wouldn’t have noticed anything wrong. I wouldn’t expect him to name Buffy’s race, because white, to me, is default also. It was only in the juxtaposition, in the so-loud silence after the uncomfortable-speaking2, that I could see the damaging ideas already taking root in my child’s psyche: White is default, unnameable; Black can be spoken, and is therefore other.

Up to now, we, like many bathed for a lifetime in white privilege, have named race only when it “came up” — meaning when a non-white person or persons entered a situation (real life or television). And when it does, we name both white and, as best we can, nonwhite. But still this is based on white-as-default, and communicates so much to the Boychick about what we take for granted, “normal”, and what we see as Other. It is, to put it plainly, based on racism.

To some extent, his belief in white-as-default is normal. To some extent, we enter the world incapable of believing that anyone is not-like us. But he is entering a phase where this is no longer entirely true: within the last month (around when he started naming race regularly at all), he has started announcing he is a boy, and when he plays Buffy or Kendra is a girl, which is different. And furthermore, it is white privilege that has allowed him to be race-ignorant for this long: children who do not see themselves so represented in their neighbourhoods, their television, even their books, have race-knowledge forced on them much earlier. And still more: because of that privilege he has (we have) even more of an obligation to counter ignorance, to do better, to be a decent human being. Because that’s really what this is all about.

I’m not entirely sure what to do. Or, I am, and I am terrified to do it: the solution is to name race more. To name race when everyone in the room is white. To name race when almost everyone in the room is white and not starting-and-ending with that “almost”. To name race as easily as we name hair color, clothing, gender, height.

This terrifies me not just because it is so taboo in “we don’t see race” “anti-racist” white circles, but because I am so afraid of doing it wrong.

Because it is so easy to do wrong. Kendra and Buffy I got down: Black and white. Not too hard3. Diego4 is Latino, or close enough (I hope). And anyone who we know well enough to tell us their race, then we use that. But people on the street? In a crowd? Is that person black? Arabic? Indian? (Is that even an appropriate term?) He looks Native American — but what about his tribe? Does he prefer Native American or American Indian, or…? And her: is she swarthy and kinky-haired and white? Black, white and Jewish? Him: Aboriginal? Actually African? And oh lord I think she’s from East Asia, but where? Is Asian enough? (Why can I probably get right French or English, but not Korean or Japanese?) How the hell do I do this??

I don’t know. Truly, I don’t. Race and ethnicity and nationality and identity are complicated enough when one can tell another clearly the words and terms one prefers; leave it to Clueless White Girl to name, or approximate, or guess, and, well… it’s not pretty. Or, possibly, wise. And yet, what are my other options? To remain silent, and let kyriarchy colonize my child unopposed? To pretend race doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter — or doesn’t affect him –, thereby guaranteeing his racism?

As always, it seems, I am left with this: it has to be enough that I am trying. It has to be enough that he will see the process, learn the reasons, if not be raised well then well enough to continue on the path towards basic decency himself. It has to be enough that when he says he is Kendra and he is Black he is affirmed, and when he says he is Buffy, he is asked her race. It has to be enough, because it’s all I have.

But I’ll keep looking for better.

  1. Take criticisms of my child’s viewing habits elsewhere. Or better yet, stuff ‘em. I’m not gonna defend it, I just don’t wanna hear about it.
  2. Because speaking race is still uncomfortable to me, though getting ever less so the more I practice.
  3. USians, quite rightly, are sometimes criticized for seeing all race issues as black and white (pun intended, I think). And while this has something to do with our long and ugly history of slavery and segregation (ignoring our long and ugly history of genocide and colonization), I sometimes think it’s also, in part, because clueless white folks (like yours truly) stand on far firmer ground naming “white” (us) and “black” (everyone part of the African diaspora, tribes and ethnicities and families and lineages ripped away from them, freeing us from having to make any finer distinctions). It’s not at all an excuse for not doing better, but I wonder sometimes if it’s part of an explanation.
  4. From his video game, Diego Does Dinos, or whatever it’s called; he hasn’t seen Dora or Diego the shows, and I’m quite happy to keep it that way, thanks.

Celebrate Bisexuality Day 2010

Today is some-day-we-can’t-decide-on-the-name-of-but-is-definitely-about-yay-for-being-bi day!

(Variously known as Celebrate Bisexuality Day, Bisexual Visibility Day, and Bi Pride Day.)

There are two problems with the term “bisexual: b and i, that two-letter prefix meaning “two”. Because bisexual says — however else we mean it — of or relating to two sexes. The most commonly accepted definition of bisexual is “sexually attracted to both genders”. And that “both” indicates not only two, but only two, which erases nonbinary persons of many different genders.

There are several suggested replacements for the currently-umbrella “bisexual”. My own favorite is queer, both because I like the word and because it indicates solidarity with other non-straight sexualities. Its main appeal is also its major limitation, though, which is that it doesn’t distinguish between queer monosexualities (eg gay, lesbian) and queer non-monosexualities — and while I, as all queer folk do, experience marginalization specifically because I am not straight (despite also having straight-appearing and straight-partner privilege), I also experience marginalization based on not being monosexual. In order to talk about this difference between monosexual and nonmonosexual queers, we need to have a word for the differences, which is why queer cannot be the primary replacement or “fix” for the problem that is bisexual.

As I used in the prior paragraph, another option is nonmonosexual — which, while linguistically useful, is overly long, overly academic, and centers on what we are not rather than what we are. Pansexual is possibly the one whose meaning I like best — across all — but is both obscure and not personally appealing. Omnisexual, also obscure, perpetuates the anything-that-moves stereotype. Polysexual means exactly the same as non-monosexual and thus might be ideal, but its abbreviation — poly — is already taken by the polyamory community.

So I am still waiting for a perfect word — not to dictate to others the word used for their own identity, but to have the perfect pink-purple-blue umbrella for all our identities that doesn’t erase our own or our loved one’s genders. But that doesn’t mean I’m about to let this day go unnoticed.

Because as problematic as the word we use to describe it is, I’m not dropping the chance to celebrate my sexuality –

Because bisexual isn’t incompatible with monogamy, but monogamy isn’t any better and shouldn’t be more accepted than polyamory

Because it’s about attraction and identity and potentiality, not history and actions and who I’ve boned

Because straight folks never have to prove their sexuality, and gay folks usually have their proof accepted (if not welcomed) –

Because sometimes bisexual is a transitory identity; sometimes so is straight; sometimes so is gay –

Because bisexual doesn’t mean “exactly equally attracted to two genders” — not least of which because there aren’t only two genders –

Because not everyone is bi, and we are not un-PC for wanting to name ourselves –

Because we are not “gay-lite” and we do have unique experiences

Because the Boychick just told me one of his kid elephants has two dad elephants and another has three mom elephants –

Because we teach our children about love every day

Because we are not faking it –

Because we have decided –

Because visibility really does matter –

Because I am bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, polysexual, nonmonosexual, queer, dykey, hot bi babe, big fat flirt, not gay, not straight, and still not gonna sleep with you –

Happy Bi Visibility Day!

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